Table Talk:Succot – Exile
“May it be Your will, God, my Lord, and the Lord of my ancestors…may this be reckoned for me as if I have wandered afar…” The above text is part of the meditation we recite each night of Succot as we enter the Succah. We ask God to consider our moving out from our homes into the succah as if we have gone into exile. This is based on a Midrash: (Pesikta deRav Kahana 29; Yalkut Shimoni, Emor # 653) “Perhaps the people of Israel were not found worthy on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and were sentenced to exile. In return for their exiling themselves from their homes into the Succah, God will consider it as if they were again exiled to Babylon.”
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve became the first exiles when they were driven from the Garden in Eden. God placed Cherubim outside the eastern entrance to the garden to prevent the fallen couple from entering and eating from the Tree of Life. God also posted a twirling flaming sword at the entrance to guard the path to the Tree. It is fair to assume that the angels and the sword were necessary to guard the path to the Tree of Life because it would have been natural for Adam and Eve to attempt to get to the Tree and regain immortality. Yet, we never read of anyone trying to get back into the garden and eat of the Tree. It seems that Adam and Eve were so preoccupied with their punishments, such as the need to work in order to eat, that they lost touch with this Tree that offered them so much.
The Succah takes us back to just outside the Garden, right at the path that leads to the Tree of Life. “Hashiveinu Hashem ailecha, v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu kikedem,” “Return us to You, God, and we will return. Renew our days as of old.” There is an alternative reading of the closing phrase; “renew our days, and bring us back to ‘kedem’, kedem, meaning east of Eden. We are actually asking God to bring us back to those first moments of our exile from the Garden and this time we will focus our energies on regaining immortality. We will forget about the mundane battles that occupy us night and die, that dilute our spiritual lives. We will focus on accessing the Tree of Life, the Torah, “It is a Tree of Life,” hidden in the Ark, protected by two cherubim, the same angels who stood outside Eden.
The first exile, that of Adam and Eve from the Garden, was not expected to last. Adam and Eve had an opportunity to fight their way back in. They did not. They distracted themselves with the demands of life and forgot about the Garden and its Tree of Life. The succah is an opportunity to regain our perspective and remember that the key battle is to regain entry into the Garden and eat of the Tree of Life.
There is a Midrash in Psalms that teaches that the theme of succah and exile actually predates Adam and Eve: Psalms 76:3: “Then His tabernacle was in Jerusalem, and His succah in Zion.” Rabbi Berechiah taught: At the very beginning of His creation of the earth, the Holy One, blessed is He, set a Succah in Jerusalem, within which – if one may use a manner of speaking – He prayed: “Let it be the will that My children do My will, so that I will not destroy My house and My Temple.” But when sin did bring this destruction about, what does scripture say? “And He has stripped His succah as if it were a garden. He destroyed His place of meeting.” (Lamentations 2:6)
How strange! Why did God want to pray inside a succah? Why did God destroy the succah in which He prayed when those prayers failed? In a later verse in Lamentations, 3:44, the verse uses succah to block our prayers! “You have covered Yourself, sakkotah, with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.”
God knew that the Temple would be destroyed. Why did He pray? It appears that God’s succah, and His presence in it, symbolized Israel inside the Temple and their connection to it. God imbued the idea of the House of God with Divine influence for those who were willing to receive it, so that they would be empowered by God to nurture their attachment to this place. This entire Midrash is the embodiment of Israel with the will to protect this Home. The connection between Israel and the Temple of God was seeded at the very beginning of creation. It is a part of creation no less than any of the visible creations. The will to connect with God’s home does not need the actual structure. It continues to exist even after the destruction of the actual building.
When sin caused the destruction of God’s home, it was as if Israel had rejected the gift of the desire to exist within such a place. The people had not only rejected the Temple, they rejected all of God’s prayers uttered within the walls of His succah. “He stripped His succah as if it were a garden.” “You rejected My prayers for you within My succah; I will use a succah to block your prayers!”
When we sit in our succah we remember God’s succah, the place where He prayed that we should have the will to attach to Him and to create a place for Him in this world. We sit in our succah as God sat in His, and we pray as did He, that we should have the will, the desire, and the passion to build a house for God.
Even after the murder of his brother Abel, Cain was a great success. He is described as the first builder of cities. He is the father of music, and instruments. He is the father of weaponry. He lives on in us; his granddaughter, Na’ama, married Noah, our ancestor. Cain achieved all this while in exile. “When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a vagrant and a wanderer on earth.”
Cain settled east of Eden immediately after receiving his sentence. (Genesis 4:16) He went back to the place of the first exile. He returned to the place where his parents were
driven from the Garden. Cain was claiming that he was no different from his parents. He was not the first exile. He felt that this was the only place where he would feel comfortable.
This was actually a worse exile than to be somewhere else. Cain was a penitent. (4:13) Yet, he could not walk away from his sin. He blamed his past. His parents were responsible for his situation. Cain would not find peace as long as he tried to escape responsibility. Just as he said to God; “My sin is too great to carry.” Cain was so focused on trying to place blame and avoid the consequences of his sin, that he carried it with him wherever he went. He began his exile by attempting to recreate his past life, before his sin. (Radak; Genesis 4:12) He would plant even after God had said that the ground would no longer yield its strength to him, fully expecting that this time it would work. He did not understand that his life as a penitent demanded that he accept responsibility. He did not comprehend that his Teshuva demanded an entirely different existence. He accomplished so much and yet all he wanted was to escape his past mistakes. Despite all his accomplishments he failed to understand that he would never be able to recreate his past. God had challenged Cain to create a new life for himself. He failed and died as God predicted, seven generations later.
The succah is a guide to the next stage of the Teshuva process. We step away from our lives, however, we are not trying to escape: A succah can only be a temporary dwelling. We cannot permanently escape our past. Our challenge is to reclaim our past but only if we can discover a new path. According to Hasidic custom we do not enter our succah through our homes. We enter through a door in the succah. We do not attempt to replicate our past each time we enter the succah. We are creating a new life. We do not want to replicate the mistake of Cain. We use our time in the succah to choose an entirely new path in life, so that when we reenter our homes it is not to fall into all the same patterns of the past, but to live a new and fresh life.
Zohar; Volume 3, Pinchas, Ra’ayah Mahemna, 256a: Just as Noah’s ark was to protect those inside, so to is the Succah for protection.
The time in the ark was considered exile. (Rabbeinu Tam, Sefer HaYashar) Noah was sent into exile with the animals because he did not show enough concern for other people. He did not reach out to his contemporaries to change their ways and save their world. Noah worked non-stop in the ark. (TBSanhedrin) He lived in a world of three crowded floors, with all the animals crying out for his attention. The world around him was being destroyed. The ark was the only safe environment. When Noah stepped out of the ark he stepped into a new world. He could not accept the new reality. He was terrified that the flood would only happen again. God had to promise that the world would never again be destroyed by water before Noah was prepared to rebuild.
Our arks, succot, recreate the demands of the ark. One who is exempt from the mitzvah of succah because of distress is released only from the obligation of succah-not from other mitzvoth associated with succah, such as hospitality. (Moadim U’zemanim #88) In the event it rains on the first night of succot, it is highly preferable to wait until midnight
person to eat with him, the host should immediately serve the meal. The mitzvah to serving one’s guests, especially one who is poor and likely hungry, overrides the mitzvah of succah. (Mishna Berurah, Sha’ar HaTziyon 639:67)
The ark was a test of Noah’s faith. Despite his having spent one hundred and twenty years preparing for the flood, Noah hesitated in the final moments before entering the ark. (Rashi; Genesis 7:7 ) Noah had limited faith. God had to force Noah into the ark with the first forceful rains of the flood. This man of limited faith was willing to dedicate a major portion of his life to preparing for a flood he did not have absolute faith would come. Noah’s limited faith is still astounding. The ark demanded an even higher level of faith. Why would he hesitate? What would he lose by entering the ark even if the flood would not begin?
Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, of Yeshivas Ner Yisrael, explains (based on Shiurei Da’as) that we usually trust our physical sense more than we trust our intellect. He compares this to people touching something with a “wet paint” sign on it. We need to test the reality with our physical senses. Noah’s more than a century of work was based on his intellect. However, he understood, just as he was about to enter his ark that his reality was going to change. He needed to physically experience the rain before being able to step into his ark. Noah understood that the world would be destroyed. Everything on which he relied would be crushed by the floodwaters. He would survive only with God’s help. He still had all that he needed in this world as he was building the ark. Once he stepped into the ark, he was stepping away from his world. That final step demanded an even higher level of faith.
The succah is an all-encompassing mitzvah. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explained that this is one mitzvah that we fulfill with our entire body. Our physical action must include our intellectual awareness that when we step into the succah we are stepping into a different reality. The succah demands that we too rise to a higher level of faith. We acknowledge with our entire being that we live under God’s protection. We do not need a solid roof or four walls to be safe. We step into God’s home, the succah, into His protection. This is why the Zohar (Emor 103a) describes the succah as the “succah of the shadow of faith.” The succah is our ark. It is, as it was for Noah, a step up into a higher level of faith. We must be willing to see ourselves as Noah about to let go of all we have outside of the ark/succah and exist entirely on our faith in God’s protection.
Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests, is a fundamental part of the mitzvah of succah. We welcome others into our ark and serve them as Noah cared for those in his. The Zohar (Emor 103a) teaches: “When a person sits in the succah of the shadow of faith, the Shechinah spreads its wings over him from above…and Abraham and the other righteous ones make their abode with him. A man should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests who abide with him. One must also gladden the poor. Only if a man invites others into his succah will Abraham and the six other righteous ones sit with him in his succah.”
The succah is our ark. It is a test of our faith in God. It is a challenge to reach out to others beyond its walls I suspect that is why we do not have four solid walls; we leave some of the succah open in order to connect to others.
After his final confrontation with Esau, Jacob traveled to Succot, where he built succot. This is contrasted to Esau traveling to and settling in Seir, his homeland. Seir is to Esau what the Land of Canaan was to Jacob. (Genesis 33:17) The verse is hinting that Jacob’s sojourn in Succot was part of his preparation to settle in his homeland. This is the first time in years that Jacob felt safe from his brother. It is in Succot that Jacob can refocus his life. He had spent years fighting others. He fought Esau. He battled his father-in-law, Laban. Jacob was constantly in a state of readiness for battle, prepared to defend his actions and beliefs. His home in Succot was his opportunity to structure a new life. His family was almost complete. He no longer feared his brother or Laban. He used his time in Succot to choose a new path in life. He could now focus on creating rather than fighting to survive.
Succot follows Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It comes immediately on the heels of our greatest confrontation with Satan, which is on Yom Kippur. This festival follows a period in which we fight to defend ourselves against his accusations. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we fight to rebuild our lives. We acknowledge our mistakes. We recognize the areas of our lives that are lacking. We vow to rebuild and choose a new direction. Our time in the succah is our opportunity, as it was for the patriarch, Jacob, to focus on our future, our next steps. It is our chance to choose a new path.
Moses moved his tent outside of the camp of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf.(Exodus 33:7) His tent became known as the Tent of Meeting, the forerunner of the Tabernacle. Those who wanted to seek God would leave the camp and visit Moses’ tent. It was there that people would go to “meet” with God. Moshe moved into exile. He could no longer live together with the people he led. He returned from forty days in the highest heavens only to find that the camp of Israel had been corrupted. Moses needed an environment where he could maintain the high level of attachment he had achieved.
The ultimate “Tent of Meeting” symbolized God’s presence in an impure world. “That dwells with them despite their impurity.” The Tabernacle has clear boundaries. It recreates the boundaries of Sinai. It can exist in our midst only because of those boundaries. The Tent of Meeting begins away from the people, outside of the camp.
Only after the long process of forgiveness, culminating on Yom Kippur with the gift of the Second Tablets, can the Tent of Meeting exist within the camp.
Succot is actually a process. We begin the festival in the first Tent of Meeting, the tent of Moses that can exist together with the imperfections of the camp of Israel. Our goal is to reach the level of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting that can dwell in the midst of our imperfections. We begin the holiday by walking away from our homes, our world as we
know it. We move away from the camp. The succah too must be a place of boundaries. We are charged to maintain a high level of sanctity in the succah. Our speech inside the succah must be different and more careful. Our behavior should reflect the holiness of the succah. When we create boundaries we are declaring that this fragile booth we built is holy. We have again succeeded in building a home for God. We take the heights we reached on Yom Kippur and say that we cannot maintain those levels in our daily lives. We step outside of our lives to create a safe environment in which we can maintain what we gained on Yom Kippur. That is only the first step of the process.
We hope that we can use the safety of the succah to learn how to maintain that connection to God even when we return to our homes. We are not escaping from our lives. We are preparing to reenter our world on a different level.